Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Reappearing Eelgrass

April 1, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 


ZA few decades ago, when eelgrass populations were healthy and vast underwater meadows covered the bottoms of our bays, this aquatic plant species was largely considered to be more of a nuisance than anything else. Who would have imagined then that people would now volunteer to help this most underappreciated species?

In the past, swimmers would complain about the presence of eelgrass meadows, beachgoers would hate the sight of dried “seaweed” wrack lines plaguing their picturesque beaches (eelgrass is frequently and mistakenly referred to as seaweed), and eelgrass would frustratingly clog boat propellers. In recent decades we have seen a significant worldwide drop in eelgrass populations due to a multitude of factors, both human-influenced and environmental in nature.  Its absence may not have been missed by humans, but the many varieties of fin fish and shellfish that rely on eelgrass meadows as an essential habitat suffered from the lack of spawning, nursery, and foraging grounds.

Eelgrass serves an important role in the marine ecosystem by not only providing habitat, but by increasing water quality, anchoring sediments, and mitigating storm surges that subject our fragile shorelines to erosion.  Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) of Suffolk County’s Marine Program took the waning eelgrass population as a call to action, leading regional efforts for the past 20 years to study the causes of the decline, monitor what’s still thriving, and restore populations in areas still capable of supporting eelgrass.

CCE’s SCUBA-certified restoration scientists have logged thousands of hours of bottom time underwater studying eelgrass and testing numerous restoration methods.  The program’s most recently developed restoration technique, known as the burlap disc method, involves transplanting eelgrass shoots from healthy donor meadows to suitable restoration sites via biodegradable burlap discs stocked with eelgrass plants.

CCE’s burlap disc method created a need for land-based participants to weave live eelgrass shoots into specially designed, biodegradable, burlap eelgrass planting units — so here’s where the restoration volunteers come in!

CCE staff recognized the opportunity to involve the public by starting the Marine Meadows Program in 2011.  This program represents the collaboration of a successful scientific restoration program and an effective public involvement campaign.  Through the Marine Meadows Program school groups, civic organizations, and the general public are invited to participate in restoration workshops that provide an experience that is both educational and hands-on.  Each spring and fall, CCE staff offer free Marine Meadows Workshops, at which participants get to learn about the importance of eelgrass to our marine environment and then get to help stock hundreds of burlap discs with live eelgrass plants.

Kimberly Barbour showing workshop participants scallop spat found in donor shoots. CCE

The donor eelgrass shoots utilized for the Marine Meadows Program are hand-harvested nondestructively by CCE’s divers from healthy, natural meadows.  The harvested eelgrass shoots are kept in large holding tanks at CCE’s Suffolk County Marine Environmental Learning Center in Southold until they are packed in coolers and transported to the workshop location, where they are then woven into burlap planting units by workshop participants.  The assembled planting units then take a trip back to the holding tanks until they can be planted at carefully-selected restoration sites by CCE’s dive team.

Since the inception of the Marine Meadows Program, nearly 1,000 individuals at 33 workshops have volunteered their time to help stock 65,130 shoots of eelgrass into discs that CCE’s restoration specialists have planted at numerous sites throughout the Long Island Sound, Peconic Estuary, and South Shore embayments.  As these figures suggest, such public involvement significantly increases the scope, scale and effectiveness of CCE’s eelgrass habitat restoration efforts.  Furthermore, this program helps foster stewardship in our local communities, which will lead to long-term improvements in our environment.

SoFo Workshop participants weaving eelgrass into the burlap planting discs. CCE

Eelgrass restoration efforts have proven to be very successful; spawning and nursery grounds for many commercially and recreationally important fin and shellfish species have been expanded.  Increasing the extent of eelgrass meadows also helps to increase water quality in our bays, so everyone who enjoys being in or on our waters benefits from the work of CCE’s dedicated staff and the many Marine Meadows Program volunteers.

More volunteers are always welcome. The schedule for Marine Meadows Workshops is located at  To learn more about CCE’s efforts to restore eelgrass, please visit Also, as boating season begins, please remember to be kind to our valuable marine meadows by staying in marked channels to prevent prop-scarring, and avoiding anchoring or shell-fishing in our fragile eelgrass beds.  With your help, we can reverse the disappearing eelgrass trend and keep helping it reappear!


By Kimberly Barbour

webPlus_web_green1Underwater eelgrass video

The first video feature 2 divers, Steve Schott and Kim Manzo planting at Moriches Bay restoration site.

The second showcases habitat utilization by several fish at one of the restored meadows.

The footage was filmed by Sherryll Jones.


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